The United States said Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry technically abided his own government’s laws after he stayed in Myanmar at a hotel owned by a sanctioned tycoon.
Myanmar, the host of talks this week among Southeast Asian foreign ministers in its showcase capital Naypyidaw, put up Kerry and his entourage at the Lake Garden hotel, which is owned by tycoon Zaw Zaw’s Max Myanmar Group.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Kerry was assigned the hotel by Myanmar’s foreign ministry and that, while Zaw Zaw himself was blacklisted, US law does not prohibit Americans from staying at accommodation owned by sanctioned companies.
“You can stay at this hotel no matter who you are, you just can’t do business with it. So if you wanted to sell them towels, you could not do that. But you could stay there,” Harf explained.
Harf insisted that the choice of hotel did not conflict with the US push for Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to do more on human rights.
“When the secretary of state and President (Barack) Obama sit in Burma with Burmese leaders directly to their face and say, you need to do more to reform, I think that makes the case much more clearly than where the secretary sleeps,” she said.
US relations with Myanmar have warmed dramatically since the former military dictatorship embarked on democratic reforms several years ago.
The United States has lifted most sanctions but keeps in place restrictions aimed at elements of the powerful army. Zaw Zaw is considered well-connected with the military, which abruptly moved the national capital out of Myanmar’s largest city Yangon in 2005 and built the new city.
Out of 2 million tourists that visited Myanmar in 2013, only about 12,000 (0.6%) visited Naypyidaw. Unless there is a major event like World Economic Forum, ASEAN Ministerial Summit or the annual jade and gem exhibition/auction – Naypyidaw is deserted most of the time. If you were a businessman opening a hotel in Naypyidaw is a money losing venture. Most Myanmar tycoons open hotels in Naypyidaw to show support for the Myanmar government – many as you may guess are on the US Sanction List. With the US’s pivot to Asia strategy we can expect more visits by US President, Secretary of State, trade delegations, military, etc to Naypyidaw.
In order not to have another hullabaloo about why US officials are staying in hotels owned by cronies – the US could do the followings:
- make their staff stay in hotels not owned by cronies which are probably 3 stars hotel that is not well located, not very comfortable and is probably a security risk.
- they could rent and maintain service apartments or villas in Naypyidaw that they know is not owned by cronies – so that the staff do not have to stay at hotels and compromise themselves unkowingly.
- insist that staff do not stay overnight in Naypyidaw i.e. after the meeting drive straight back to Yangon – it is only a 5 hours drive anyway.
- lift all sanctions against Myanmar individuals on the US SDN List i.e. forgive and forget. Unless of course these individuals are recalcitrant in their behaviors and continue brazenly to undermine US security interest.
By the way most of the gas stations between Yangon and Naypyidaw are also owned by Myanmar tycoons on the US Sanction List!